Fossil Fuels: I’m Not Dead Yet

From Monty Python: "Bring out your dead"

Having looked at the major alternatives to fossil fuel energy production (summarized here), we come away with the general sentiment that the easy days of cheap energy are not evidently carried forward into a future without fossil fuels.  That’s right, fossil fuels will be dead and gone.  Is it time to pile them on the cart to be hauled away?

In the slapdash scoring scheme I employed in the alternative energy matrix, the best performers racked up 5 points, whereas by the same criteria, our traditional fossil fuels typically achieved the near-perfect score of 8/10. The only consistent failing is in the abundance measure, which is ultimately what brings us all together here at Do the Math. Fossil fuels are presently used in abundance—85% of current energy use—but this is a short-term prospect, ending within the century. The first effects of decline may be close at hand.  Do I hear talk of nursing homes?

The gulf between fossil fuels and their alternatives tends to be rather large in terms of utility, energy density, practicality, ease of use, versatility, energy return on energy invested, etc. In other words, we do not merrily step off the fossil fuel ride onto the next one by “just” allowing the transition to happen. The alternatives come at a cost, and we will miss the golden days of fossil fuels. But wait…what’s that murmur?  Not dead yet?

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The Alternative Energy Matrix

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Breathe, Neo. I’ve been running a marathon lately to cover all the major players that may provide viable alternatives to fossil fuels this century. Even though I have not exhausted all possibilities, or covered each topic exhaustively, I am exhausted. So in this post, I will provide a recap of all the schemes discussed thus far, in matrix form. Then Do the Math will shift its focus to more of the “what next” part of the message.

The primary “mission” of late has been to sort possible future energy resources into boxes labeled “abundant,” “potent” (able to support something like a quarter of our present demand if fully developed), and “niche,” which is a polite way to say puny. In the process, I have clarified in my mind that a significant contributor to my concerns about future energy scarcity is not the simple quantitative scorecard. After all, if it were that easy, we’d be rocking along with a collective consensus about our path forward. Some comments have  asked: “If we forget about trying to meet our total demand with one source, could we meet our demand if we add them all up?” Absolutely. In fact, the abundant sources technically need no other complement. So on the abundance score alone, we’re done at solar, for instance. But it’s not that simple, unfortunately. While the quantitative abundance of a resource is key, many other practical concerns enter the fray when trying to anticipate long-term prospects and challenges—usually making up the bulk of the words in prior posts.

For example, it does not much matter that Titan has enormous pools of methane unprotected by any army (that we know of!). The gigantic scale of this resource makes our Earthly fossil fuel allocation a mere speck. But so what? Practical considerations mean we will never grab this energy store. Likewise, some of our terrestrial sources of energy are super-abundant, but just a pain in the butt to access or put to practical use.

In this post, we will summarize the ins and outs of the various prospects. Interpretation will come later. For now, let’s just wrap it all up together.

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Nuclear Fusion

Ah, fusion. Long promised, both on Do the Math and in real life, fusion is regarded as the ultimate power source—the holy grail—the “arrival” of the human species. Talk of fusion conjures visions of green fields and rainbows and bunny rabbits…and a unicorn too, I hear. But I strike too harsh a tone in my jest. Fusion is indeed a stunningly potent source of energy that falls firmly on the reality side of the science fiction divide—unlike unicorns. Indeed, fusion has been achieved (sub break-even) in the lab, and in the deadliest of bombs. On the flip side, fusion has been actively pursued as the heir-apparent of nuclear fission for over 60 years. We are still decades away from realizing the dream, causing many to wonder exactly what kind of “dream” this is.

Our so-far dashed expectations seem incompatible with our sense of progress. Someone born in 1890 would have seen horses give way to cars, airplanes take to the skies, the invention of radio, television, and computers, development of nuclear fission, and even humans walking on the Moon by the age of 79. Anyone can extrapolate a trajectory, and this trajectory intoned that fusion would arrive any day—along with colonies on Mars. Yet we can no longer buy a ticket to cross the Atlantic at supersonic speeds, and the U.S. does not have a human space launch capability any more. Even so, fusion remains “just around the corner” in many minds.

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The Motion of the Ocean

With the exception of tidal energy, our focus thus far has been on land-based energy sources. Meanwhile, the ocean absorbs a prodigious fraction of the Sun’s incident energy, creating thermal gradients, currents, and waves whipped up by winds. Let’s put some scales on the energetics of these sources and see if we may turn to them for help. We’ve got our three boxes ready: abundant, potent, and niche (puny). Time to do some sorting!

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Basking in the Sun

Who hasn’t enjoyed heat from the sun? Doing so represents a direct energetic transfer—via radiation—from the sun’s hot surface to your skin. One square meter can catch about 1000 W, which is comparable to the output of a portable space heater. A dark surface can capture the energy at nearly 100% efficiency, beating (heating?) the pants off of solar photovoltaic (PV) capture efficiency, for instance. We have already seen that solar PV qualifies as a super-abundant resource, requiring panels covering only about 0.5% of land to meet our entire energy demand (still huge, granted). So direct thermal energy from the sun, gathered more efficiently than what PV can do, is automatically in the abundant club. Let’s evaluate some of the practical issues surrounding solar thermal: either for home heating or for the production of electricity.

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Warm and Fuzzy on Geothermal?

The Earth started its existence as a red-hot rock, and has been cooling ever since. It’s still quite toasty in the core, and will remain so for billions of years, yet. Cooling implies a flow of heat, and where heat flows, the possibility exists of capturing useful energy. Geysers and volcanoes are obvious manifestations of geothermal energy, but what role can it play toward satisfying our current global demand? Following the recent theme of Do the Math, we will put geothermal in one of three boxes labeled abundant, potent, or niche (puny). Have any guesses?

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Nuclear Options

A recent thrust on Do the Math has been to sort our renewable energy options into “abundant,” “potent,” and “niche” boxes. This is a reflection of my own mathy introduction to the energy scene, the result of which convinced me that we face giant—and ultimately insurmountable—hurdles in our quest to continue a growth trajectory. It is not obvious that we will even manage to maintain today’s energy standards. We have many more sources/topics to cover before moving on to the “now what” phase of Do the Math. Meanwhile, requests for me to address the nuclear story are mounting. So before readers become mutinous, I should interrupt the renewable thread to present my nuclear reaction. It’s a rich topic, and in this post I will only give a tutorial introduction and my big-picture take. A single post can’t possibly address all the nuances, so my main goal here is to demystify what nuclear is all about, build a vocabulary, and set a foundation for further discussion in later posts.

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The Future Needs an Attitude Adjustment

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Festivus Pole.

Kids these days. When I was a lad, tantrums were redressed with a spanking. Heck, spankings (at school) were answered by further spanking (at home). In polite company, we might apply the euphemism “attitude adjustment” to mask the unpleasant image of a bawling kid bent over the knee getting red in the tail. I’m not going to wade into the issue of whether or not such treatment is the most effective way to shape responsible adults, but I will say that I think our society needs some sort of attitude adjustment when it comes to expectations of our future. I’ll take a pause from the renewable energy juggernaut recently featured on Do the Math and offer some seasonal scolding. Think of it as my “airing of grievances” component of Festivus: “a holiday for the rest-of-us,” as introduced on Seinfeld.

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Reader’s Forum, Take 1

I try to run a tight ship on comments, keeping discussion focused on the post topic, and in accordance with the discussion policy.  But I sympathize with those who want to go off-road, since the overall topic is vast and has many threads—and I have not discussed some major components of the story yet.  So as a holiday gift to Do the Math readers, I open here a discussion forum open to all topics involving growth, energy, fossil fuels, renewables, nuclear, demand and behaviors, societal hurdles, political facets, visions of the future, etc.  This is your chance to express the big-picture points that may not fit within the narrow confines of ordinary on-topic discussions.

I will reject only comments that I deem to be uncivil, too far from Do the Math concerns, or so lengthy that I don’t have time to screen them (and long screeds also discourage readers and are therefore less likely to be read). If you’re tempted to write a long essay, I highly recommend starting a blog of your own (it’s not really that hard).  Then you can summarize a thesis in a few sentences and point to the larger content elsewhere. So there you have it—now go nuts!

How Much Dam Energy Can We Get?

Having now sorted solar, wind, and tidal power into three “boxes,” let’s keep going and investigate another source of non-fossil energy and put it in a box. Today we’ll look at hydroelectricity. As one of the earliest renewable energy resources to be exploited, hydroelectricity is the low-hanging fruit of the renewable world. It’s steady, self-storing, highly efficient, cost-effective, low-carbon, low-tech, and offers a serious boon to water skiers. I’m sold! Let’s have more of that! How much might we expect to get from hydro, and how important will its role be compared to other renewable resources?

Last week, as soon as I put tidal power into a box labeled “waste of time,” I received some deserved howls of protest. I saw it coming, and had built in words to soften the “waste of time” label. But it was a poor choice from the start. A better set of labels is “abundant,” “potent,” and “niche.” The last could also be thought of as “boutique,” in that it is cute, perhaps decorative, may serve some function, but will never be a heavy lifter. The “potent” label—formerly “useful”— is meant to indicate a source that could supply a healthy fraction (say over a quarter) of our global demand if fully exploited. We will never fully exploit any resource, so the numbers at least need to support ¼-scale before we can believe that it may play a major role.

I should also point out that all along, my approach is to pretend that our goal is to keep up our current energy standards in a post-fossil-fuel world. In the process, we will see just how hard that will be to do. It is by no means impossible, but it’s much more difficult and compromised than most people realize. In the end, it is not clear that we will maintain our current global rate of energy usage: the future is unwritten. On the plus side, some of the approaches I cast into the “niche” box may become “potent” in a scaled-down world. Firewood was once abundant, then moved to potent, and is now a niche. But a reversal of fortunes could change all that.

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